A first grade classroom at the Branch Brook Elementary School...

A first grade classroom at the Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown. (January 4, 2011) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Teachers, students, parents and community activists from across the United States will kick off a three-day conference Friday in Washington, D.C., to unite against policies they say are corrosive to the nation's education system.

Save Our Schools, a grassroots group that held an 8,000-person march in Washington last summer, is hosting the event. Education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who is a professor at New York University, and Jonathan Kozol, author of "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools," are among the speakers.

Key ideas that organizers said they support include equitable funding for schools and an end to high-stakes testing for the purpose of evaluating students, teachers and schools. They also want to see curriculum developed by and for local communities, with inclusion of teachers, families and community leaders.

Nikhil Goyal, 17, who will be a senior at Syosset High School when school starts Sept. 4, will serve on a student panel that meets Saturday. He said he favors project-based learning, an end to high-stakes testing and the molding of an individual's education around his or her passions.

" 'Accountability' is a code for punishment," he said.

Participants also said former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program is a proven failure and President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative only doubles down on the previous administration's misguided policies.

Jesse Turner, a founding member of Save Our Schools and a part of the group's national steering committee, said he hopes the conference unifies participants so they can speak with one strong voice.

"When you look at the resistance to policies of high-stakes assessment, what we find is that we are diverse," he said. "We are 1,000 candles in the night; we're never in one place. The purpose of this conference is to create a unified resistance." Turner is director of the Central Connecticut State University Literacy Center and teaches graduate courses for reading specialists.

Deborah Meier spent 50 years working in public education, mostly as a teacher, and wishes the federal government would better fund professional development programs. She won a MacArthur "genius" award for her work in 1987, blogs for Education Week and is a steering committee member for Save Our Schools.

"I think they went off in utterly the wrong direction," she said, speaking of national education policy-makers. "They were not people who knew anything about the life of schools. I would like to see the people who know the children best -- parents and teachers -- have the largest voice in both assessing children and in making decisions about their education."Mike Klonsky, also on the national steering committee, wants Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, to take note.

"We want to turn SOS into a real presence nationally," said Klonsky, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. "We want to put some pressure on both political parties -- both have been lacking in terms of education policy."

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